Demand at local food shelves skyrocketed in the past year, as more Minnesotans face layoffs and job insecurity.
Graph from Hungers Solutions report
Visits to metro area food shelves increased 21 percent in the last year, according to a new report from Hunger Solutions, a hunger relief organization. In Dakota and Carver counties, increases are even more alarming, at 70 percent and 66 percent respectively. At the same time, only about 69 percent of eligible Minnesota residents receive food stamp benefits.
“It’s pretty staggering,” Jon Guy, of hunger relief organization Second Harvest Heartland, said. The agency’s shipments to area food shelves have doubled over the past two years and show no signs of slowing down.
At the Emergency Foodshelf Network’s food bank, demand is up about 30 percent. The agency supplies local food shelves with free and discounted food. Large pallets of rice, cereal, and fresh produce are packed into the network’s 65,000 square foot warehouse in New Hope.
Demand for the agency’s Fare for All program increased 25 percent in just the past month. The program offers a variety of basic food items at discounted prices, most of which are distributed at local churches, community centers, and social service agencies. The “Mega Meat” package, at $22, is one of the most popular, and includes ground beef, chicken, and turkey tenderloin. “It’s a way for people to really stretch their dollar,” Ted Evans, of Emergency Foodshelf Network, said.
At the Teamsters food shelf in Minneapolis, demand is up dramatically. The food shelf primarily serves Teamsters hit hard by lay-offs. “Right now, there’s a lot of families that at one time had a decent paying job and probably never thought of themselves as being in a position where they’d need a food shelf,” Sue Mauren, president of the Teamsters Joint Council, said. “It’s a really humbling experience, but we’re glad we can be there to help.”
On a recent afternoon, south Minneapolis residents crowded into the small waiting room at the Joyce Uptown food shelf. The number of first-time users accessing the food shelf has risen over the past several months.
“They’re very embarrassed about coming,” Jean McGrath, the food shelf’s director, said. “In the past, they were contributing to the food shelf and now they’re using it.” McGrath gestured at shelves stocked full of canned food, pasta, cereal, and other items. “We’ll go through all of this in one week,” she said.
Grant, 42, who asked that his last name not be used, waited with his seven-year old daughter Symbri. Three months ago, Grant’s employer, a local manufacturer, reduced his hours. “It became really challenging to afford groceries and still make auto payments and pay all my other bills,” he said.
Gina Hyatt, 38, chimed in. She lost her waitressing job in November. Since then, Hyatt has struggled to find a job. “It seems that everyone wants to pay less,” she said. Without the food shelf, she said she does not know how she would afford food for herself and her 15-year-old daughter.
Hunger relief agencies report that the low rates of enrollment in the state’s food support program strain the resources of local food shelves. Some people find the twelve-page application form confusing, advocates said. Others attach a stigma to receiving food benefits.
To qualify for food stamps, state residents must be below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $21,200 for a family of four. Over 300,000 Minnesotans currently receive food support. About 140,000 Minnesotans are eligible but do not receive benefits.
Advocates hope that new federal funding will publicize the food support program and increase enrollment. In April, food stamp benefits went up by 14 percent, as part of a national increase in funding authorized by the federal stimulus package.
At the State Capitol last month, lawmakers introduced a bill that would allocate $500,000 in 2010 and another $500,000 in 2011 to fund food shelves and food stamp program statewide.
Additional funding would help food shelf recipients like Shalonda Stewart, a 32-year-old mother of six. Stewart uses the Joyce Uptown food shelf in the beginning of the month when money is tight. She earns $6.55 an hour as a part-time sales clerk, and also receives about $300 in cash assistance and about $700 in food support each month. Stewart, who attends GED classes and plans to become a chef, said she hopes that one day she will not need assistance. But in the meantime, she said that the food shelf is vital to provide for her family. “My kids love it,” she said. “They hate it when I don’t come here.”
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.